I just watched Microsoft (try to) make Excel exciting. Recovery won't be easy

You think spreadsheets can't be pulsating? Well, let me tell you a story.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

I love a big event where I can take sides, cheer, hiss and contemplate throwing things.

Tantrums, for example.

I never imagined, though, that the above words could ever be related to Microsoft Excel. Other than to wonder who came up with the name and why it was so blessedly unexcellent.

Then came Tuesday, a day that will live in my MacBook Air's memory for a long time. For it was that day that I watched the Financial Modeling World Cup.

Imagine beholding the Messis, Biles, Ronaldos and Tatis Jrs. of Excel battling it out to lift the big trophy.

At least I hope there was a trophy. Somehow, the prize was unclear.

What was a little clearer is that Microsoft wants this to become something of an eSport.

You see, the action had co-commentators. There was a Microsoft MVP from Australia, independent Excel performer Danielle Stein Fairhurst. And there was Microsoft's senior program manager Adam Callens, proudly sporting his Halo t-shirt and his corporate commitment to excitement.

I, for one, was definitely hoping for something to affect my pulse.

[Editor's note: Excel is part of the Microsoft 365 productivity suite.]

The Format. The Contestants. The Tension.

The eight contestants were from all over the world. Their faces were each displayed during the warmup, as were their predilections.

Michael Jarman from Canada boasted he'd drunk 3,500 unique beers. I'm not sure whether this was immediately before the contest, but he did bear a passing resemblance to Zach Galifianakis. You can decide if that's relevant.

Gabriela Strój from Poland -- her last name means Costume -- revealed that, as a child, she'd wanted to become a painter, "but I did not mean painting formats in Excel."

There was Jeff Heng Sian Tan from Malaysia who described himself as "a chubby man with a Wall Street Dream."

And there was John Lim from Australia, who presented this personal profile: "I love LEGO. Especially Star Wars LEGO."

Clearly, there were some characters here. What they were tasked to do, though, was to create a beautiful financial model from a case study. They had 40 minutes to answer 21 questions in Excel. And the case was a company called Cake to Bake.

Microsoft was at pains to insist that the idea for this competition had come from AG Capital, rather than itself. I, though, couldn't wait to see how the new, marketing-forward Microsoft was going to ratchet up my feelings.

As a final warning, Fairhurst explained: "Excel shortcuts may help, but the winner will still be the best model."

The Excitement Begins. And Falters.

"The first couple of minutes are just so important," intoned Stein.

Yes, this is just like a World Cup soccer match, where the contestants feel each other out, assess their tactics and stare without blinking.

We didn't actually get to see that here. Instead, viewers stared at an Excel spreadsheet for many minutes.

I was hoping for incisive, cutting commentary from our hosts. Sample: "What's he doing? That's so the wrong answer."

I was wishing for pulsating music that would wrap me in the tension. Isn't "The Final Countdown" compulsory in all sporting events?

And I was most certainly expecting a running commentary from the participants along the lines of: "This is a bloody stupid question."

Or: "Dammit, my Excel has frozen."

I would have adored Strój to offer some invective in Polish, as the language offers a pungent onomatopoeia.

Instead, we heard not a word. We had to settle for running -- perhaps better to say halting -- commentary from our two hosts.

They did try. Stein explained that the Cake to Bake name actually came from a Latvian entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, in which Australia oddly participates. Sadly, Callens wasn't familiar with Eurovision.

He is, however, "super-excited" about Data Types in Excel. Stein may have unwittingly caused an international incident by referring to them as Dah-ta Types.

Stein observed that "turning off the grid lines make your model look really nice." You didn't know that, did you?

Clearly, this isn't an easy event to commentate on.

Some contestants preferred to enter nothing into Excel for many minutes. What were they doing? Strój had zero points for seemingly the longest time. Suddenly she was winning.

Meanwhile, Stein tried a joke. She suggested that Tuesday's major cloud outage may have been caused by interest in this World Cup.

The Final Countdown.

It looked like we were heading for a tie.

"If it ends up being a tie, I'm not quite sure how we do that," worried Stein.

I worried, too.

"I hope they're doing OK," Stein said of the contestants. I wished we could see their faces as they struggled for this, the greatest prize of all. I wished we could see whether they were drinking vodka, wine, smoothies or perhaps something even more performance-enhancing.

And then we were done.

Just as with Eurovision, there was still some conferring to be done. The folks from AG Capital had to make sure everything was as it should be.

So this is when our commentators finally asked the contestants how they were feeling.

"You're looking very relaxed," Stein said to Jarman.

"I tend to relax when I'm modeling," he replied. Did I mention he's the man who's drunk 3,500 unique beers?

Finally, the results.

The winner only answered thirteen questions. Each was, however, correct.

One contestant got to eighteen questions, but some were wrong. Some only answered seven questions.

It was then that it was explained this sort of competition normally takes two hours. Now that would need some patience and focus. And imagination.

This eSport surely has promise. There's an enormous audience, plagued by the pressures of Excel, who would love to see how the real geniuses of the craft do it.

But it really needs the Fox Sports, reality-show treatment. We need close-ups. We need friction. We need gods. We need players with an entourage. We need drugs tests.

You're still excited to discover who won, aren't you?

It was the man who's drunk 3,500 unique beers. 

Surely you're not surprised.

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